Fantasy Football: Preseason Position Battles
Throughout the regular season, we’ll check in weekly to take a look at key questions around the league heading into the upcoming week. Until then, we’ll use this space to keep track of key position battles as training camp unfolds.
Here are five position battles to eye on for this week’s first slate of preseason games.
Eagles coach Chip Kelly began sprinkling Agholor in with the starters over the last few practices, most notably Tuesday when the rookie receiver took all of the first-team reps at Josh Huff’s usual outside spot. Agholor, the No. 20 overall pick in this year’s draft, has seen his popularity begin to rise steadily in fantasy circles as he currently carries a 91 ADP as the WR33, up from WR42 and a 113 ADP following spring workouts. Expect the price tag to continue to rise as Agholor’s tape reel grows.
Cooper is not the sexiest fantasy choice, despite his flowing locks and 6-foot-4 frame, but he has been holding fort as the other outside starter opposite Huff/Agholor. What ultimately matters is how the Eagles coaches view Cooper. They value his contributions that don’t show up on the box score, like using those long arms to block downfield and spring big runs. As a receiver, Cooper underwhelmed last season with only 577 yards and three TDs through the air, failing to build on a breakout 2013 campaign (835 yards, eight TDs) with Nick Foles.
Outlook: Jeremy Maclin left behind 119 targets (and produced 1,318 yds and 10 scores) when he signed with Kansas City in the offseason. By all accounts – and really, the eye test – Agholor is the likely candidate to grab the bulk of those targets. Just don’t be surprised if Cooper takes the first snap with the ‘Ones’ in the season opener and reprises his blocking role. DO be surprised if Agholor doesn’t end up as the team’s leading outside receiver in snaps and targets. Second-year wideout Jordan Matthews – also a breakout candidate – continues to line up primarily from the slot but will also be moved around plenty as Kelly looks to capitalize on mismatches. Veteran WR Miles Austin has also begun to get some looks with the starters.
After flashing in a handful of games (including two 100-yard performances) as a third-round rookie with the Colts last season, Moncrief entered his first full offseason as a popular candidate for a sophomore breakout. After all, it was presumed he would be stepping into Reggie Wayne’s starting spot and catching passes from the game’s top young quarterback. But then the Colts went out and signed Andre Johnson and drafted speedster Phillip Dorsett in the first round out of the University of Miami. At the moment, Moncrief and Dorsett are entrenched in a battle to lock down the Colts’ No. 3 receiver gig.
Moncrief stands at 6-foot-2 and 221 pounds with 4.4 wheels, whereas Dorsett is essentially a T.Y. Hilton clone at 5-foot-10 and 185 lbs. with 4.3 speed. Hilton just signed a lucrative contract extension with the team, and he’s not going anywhere in the near future.
Outlook: Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has a reputation for involving the tight end, and he still has two good ones in Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. But could Hamilton shift the team’s offensive identity and dial up less ‘12’ personnel (one RB, two TEs) this season in order to get three receivers on the field more often? The team certainly has the WR personnel to fit such a scheme, not to mention a quarterback in Luck who turned in eight straight 300-yard passing games last season and can easily support three fantasy-relevant receivers. Pay attention to the personnel groupings the Colts deploy throughout the preseason.
Who wants the Cardinals starting RB job? (Saturday, Aug. 15 vs. Kansas City)
Andre Ellington was given an opportunity to do the heavy lifting last season for an Arizona offense that has not produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Beanie Wells in 2011. But his 5-foot-9, 199-pound frame eventually succumbed to hip and foot injuries. Ultimately his season ended after 12 games, a 3.3 YPC average, and sports hernia surgery. Coach Bruce Arians again had visions of Ellington shouldering around 20 carries a game this season, but a lingering hamstring injury has effectively dumped cold water on those workhorse plans. Ellington did return to practice on Monday, albeit at less than 100 percent, so it’s still to be determined exactly what his usage will be this season. He was no doubt effective in space as a rookie, logging 5.5 YPC on roughly half the workload.
The Cardinals’ used a third-round selection in this year’s draft to select Northern Iowa running back David Johnson, a converted high school receiver who stands at six feet and 224 pounds. Unfortunately for Johnson, a hamstring injury has also kept him on the sidelines since Aug. 2, and the missed practice time is killing him, according to coach Bruce Arians, who said, “There’s no way in hell I’m putting (Johnson) out there” if he misses camp. So as of now, it looks like those who pre-ordered a ticket on the Johnson Express may want to look into a refund.
Outlook: The answer to the above question, at the moment, looks to be nobody. Arians has made it clear that he is not pleased with the running back position and the amount of practice time Ellington and Johnson have each missed. Subsequently, the Cardinals reportedly made a one-year offer this week to Chris Johnson, who turns 30 in September and ran for 663 yards (4.3 YPC) as part of a committee for the New York Jets last season. All things considered, Arizona’s backfield is looking like one to avoid for fantasy purposes in 2015.
Ok then, how about Cleveland’s starting RB job? (Thursday, Aug. 13 vs. Washington)
Ben Tate was the guy entering last season, then it was third-round rookie Terrance West, and by season’s end undrafted rookie Isaiah Crowell had siphoned off his share of the workload. West actually led the team with 673 rushing yards (3.9 YPC), while Crowell finished with 607 yards (4.1 YPC) and Tate wound up in Minnesota and then Pittsburgh. Crowell and West both finished outside the top 50 of Pro Football Focus’ overall RB ratings.
Browns running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery recently called out the entire RB group because none of the candidates have been able to separate to be the lead bell-cow. Crowell has been putting the ball on the ground in practice, while West has hardly been able to practice due to a calf issue after reporting to camp looking “chunky,” according to ESPN Cleveland. The Browns used a third-round pick this year to select shifty Duke Johnson out of Miami, although he has been sidelined with a hamstring injury that’s been labeled as “week to week.” Johnson has already been ruled out of the team’s preseason opener.
Outlook: Head coach Mike Pettine told SI.com on Tuesday that the Browns have considered signing troubled free agent Ray Rice, but are not at the point of getting a deal done just yet. The interesting part of that tidbit is that Montgomery was Rice’s position coach from 2008 to 2013 in Baltimore, where Pettine was an assistant coach. What once seemed like a crowded backfield situation in Cleveland is now more of a wide-open one. But going by how Pettine divvied out carries from week to week last season (rock-paper-scissors?), it’s really anybody’s guess as to how the rotation will play out at this point.
Who will be Denver’s fantasy-relevant TE? (Friday, Aug. 14 at Seattle)
Given that Julius Thomas is no longer in Denver after catching a dozen touchdown passes from Peyton Manning each of the last two seasons, naturally there is plenty of intrigue surrounding his potential replacement. Virgil Green, all 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds of him, was one of the top tight end performers at the 2011 combine but has been virtually invisible ever since, mostly utilized as a blocker.
The Broncos hired Gary Kubiak as the new head coach and also signed veteran Owen Daniels in the offseason. Kubiak has a reputation for utilizing tight ends and is expected to deploy more 12 personnel, according to Andrew Mason of DenverBroncos.com. Kubiak, of course, coached Daniels previously as the offensive coordinator for Houston from 2006 to 2013 and again for Baltimore last season.
Outlook: It’s that familiarity that puts Daniels at the top of the list here. Don’t expect double-digit TDs, but he’ll certainly be part of the Broncos’ weekly game plan. The 32-year-old Daniels currently carries a 111 ADP as the No. 11 tight end off draft boards. Green is going undrafted, and he could return decent value if the Broncos do end up scrapping more three-receiver sets in favor of two tight ends.